The score: Pittsburgh 20, Cleveland 7
Game bottom line: After being dominated by the New England Patriots, the Steelers were 2-6 and looking at picking as high as fourth in the NFL Draft. Even though their 6-2 second half cost them a dozen draft slots and still left them short of the playoffs, it was well worth it because of the emergence of the kind of key, young players you can rebuild around – Le’Veon Bell, looking like a factor back to be reckoned with; Cam Heyward, playing with the kind of temper the Steel Curtain thrived on; Kelvin Beachum, proving that you can’t measure the heart and mind of an NFL left tackle the way you measure the length of his arms; and Jason Worilds (who’s a restricted free agent now), taking better late than never to the extreme – and much more importantly, the emergence of a true (and potentially lethal) Ben Roethlisberger-Todd Haley partnership. All is not magically well with the Steelers, they’ve still got huge holes to fill on defense and not enough salary cap room to do it, but when every other fan base in America was rooting against Pittsburgh during that late Chiefs-Chargers game, it sure felt like a certain measure of order had been restored.
It was over when: …Josh Gordon started “limping” midway through the first quarter. The Steelers already were up 7-0 when the mercurial wideout, Cleveland’s only real offensive threat, began displaying signs of discomfort, and frankly, he was never really “in” the game after that. The result was as close to a breeze as you’ll ever see in the NFL with the Browns never threatening the cruising Steelers.
Play of the day:We’ve talked about Le’Veon Bell’s “coming out party” a lot in the last month, but Sunday we saw his “coming out run,” a spinning, grinding, twirling 4-yard touchdown through about five Cleveland defenders at the 4:33 mark of the second quarter that gave Pittsburgh an insurmountable (on this day) lead.
+ The Steelers can’t blame Ryan Succop or Referee Bill Leavy for missing the playoffs. They can only blame themselves, and we’re sure most of them know that (even if some fans don’t). As we noted going in, when you miss the playoffs by one game, it amplifies every little thing that happened during the season, and what a list the Steelers could compile. The phantom tripping call in Cincinnati, the shoddy tackling in London, the AWOL defense on Terrelle Pryor’s run, two missed field goals by the team’s most reliable player, the lack of urgency in the final four minutes at Baltimore, going for it on 4th-and-10 inside your own 10 against the Dolphins and, finally, finally, that sliver of Antonio Brown’s foot touching the line on that game’s final play.
+ That said, how was that fake punt play NOT reviewed in the Chargers-Chiefs overtime? Forward progress is not reviewable, but a player’s helmet coming off is and so is possession. It certainly looked like the Chiefs defender took the ball from Eric Weddle while he was still moving forward and before his helmet came off. In overtime, the review would have had to be called for from the booth. Possibly the only thing worse than missing the playoffs that way is finding out later you shouldn’t have. (Blogger's note: As of 10 p.m. Sunday, officiating guru Mike Pereira has weighed in, saying that although possession was not reviewable on the play, he believes the Chiefs strip and score should have been allowed on the field. Pereira also notes the Chargers were in an illegal formation on the Succop miss and he should have gotten a second chance, this time from 36 yards, to send Pittsburgh to the playoffs.)
+ The Steelers 2014 schedule is set:
Home: BAL, CIN, CLE, NO, TB, HOU, IND, KC.
Away: BAL, CIN, CLE, ATL, CAR, JAX, TEN, NYJ.
+ The draft order will be finalized sometime Monday, but it looks to us like the Steelers will pick somewhere between 13th and 17th (some reports are starting to say 15th is locked in). Strength of schedule is the first draft-order tiebreaker and the Jets and Ravens both will pick after Pittsburgh, based on that.
+ It was almost as if Tomlin was trolling half the Steelers fan base with his brutal mismanagement of the clock in the final two minutes of the first half. First, he failed to call a timeout immediately after a short completion by the Browns on 3rd-and-21 at their own 36, and in some resulting confusion about whether Cleveland would go for it or kick, the Steelers lost 40 seconds off their ensuing possession before they finally stopped the clock. Then, he failed to stop the clock after Ben Roethlisberger was tackled on a short gain near midfield and lost 15 more seconds. Pittsburgh then threw deep and ran a draw, running out the clock without even attempting to get in field goal range and with a timeout still on the board. It was so backward it was almost funny. And like most of the blunders in his game day coaching career, it didn’t affect the outcome of the game, which is how Tomlin got a pass on it for so long.
+ Not to pile on a guy who might already have been fired by the time you read this, but Rob Chudzinski’s decisions to punt from the Steelers 33 at the end of the sequence above and on a 4th-and-3 midway through the fourth quarter while trailing 20-0 just reeked of “dead man walking.”
In the booth:
+ Spero Dedes was rock solid, just very impressive. As some of the old guard (Gumbel, Albert) finally retire, we hope Dedes gets his shot on more high-profile games.
+ Steve Beuerlein has got a really nice presence in the booth and does a nice job explaining Xs and Os on replays, but like Solly Wilcots last week he repeats too many clichés that just aren’t true. Early on, he noted you can always count on Pittsburgh’s power rushing game (not mentioning the last three seasons when you couldn’t count on it) and later noted Antonio Brown’s emergence was “a pleasant surprise” after Mike Wallace’s departure (failing to mention that the Steelers front office CHOSE Brown over Wallace and most certainly are not surprised by his play).
+ Mike Carey’s crew stayed out of trouble on the afternoon, at least from the Pittsburgh point of view, with the Browns providing plenty of “doh” moments on their own.
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Sweet tweet: “@TheWizofOz: Can’t bash the Chiefs for what they’re doing. Just have to wonder how it will affect them next week. Can’t just flip on a switch.” Blogger’s note: The “rest your starters” argument has nothing to do with an obligation to another team, it has to do with your own team’s momentum. I’m not sure Alex Smith is a guy you can rest and feel comfortable he’ll come back playing his best.
Next week: We’ll all be watching the playoffs for the second season in a row without a real rooting interest. While it’s bittersweet, it really points out how luck and spoiled we all have been here in western Pennsylvania, really since 1974.